"It's not a birthright to win 15 games in a row. It's not a birthright to have another 20-win season. It's not a birthright to win 10 league games."
Having won his first game since November with his team in the national rankings (#22), Tiger coach Josh Pastner opened his postgame press conference with heavy emphasis on the challenges his club has faced over the last three months, among them the continued perception that Memphis is fattening its record against inferior Conference USA competition. "If you don't believe this league is good — that everybody is good — then you're living in the Eighties or Nineties," he said. "Hey, I loved that music, too, but it's the past."
The Tigers enjoyed their second impressive, start-to-finish beat-down of a team considered a legitimate threat to their untarnished conference record (now 10-0). After falling behind 8-2, Memphis awoke with a pair of thunderous dunks from senior D.J. Stephens (including the 100th of his Tiger career), one on which he seemed to turn right in midair before slamming the ball through the net. Tied at 19 with eight minutes to play before halftime, the score turned permanently in the Tigers' favor as the Memphis defense continued to stifle Knight stars Keith Clanton (three for 10 from the field for 10 points) and Isaiah Sykes (17 points but nine turnovers). With 10 points and five boards from Stephens, the Tigers entered the break with a 42-36 lead.
Adonis Thomas scored seven points in the first four minutes of the second half to extend the Tiger lead to double figures (55-42). Shortly after a Kasey Wilson three-pointer brought UCF within eight, the Tigers erupted with a 22-4 blitz, sparked by three consecutive treys, two from Chris Crawford and one from Johnson. The Tigers cruised to a 22-point win despite the Knights finishing the game on an 11-2 run.
Johnson was again central to the fast pace the Tigers played, finishing all too close to the program's fourth triple-double (19 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists). With the offense seeming to flow through his hands, the Tigers outscored UCF 27-7 on fastbreak points.
"We're finding out our identity," said Johnson. "We're really devoted to being a transition basketball team. Pushing the pace. We've got some of the fastest guys in the country: Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Adonis, myself. But you've got to finish plays. You don't want a million-dollar look and a one-cent basket. Coach [Damon] Stoudamire talks about the 'hockey assist,' the extra pass. Whether it's me or someone else [making that pass], it doesn't matter."
Jackson was on the receiving end of a few of Johnson's transition passes, finishing with 21 points and 10 assists himself. The junior guard — presented with a commemorative ball before the game for recently scoring his 1,000th career point — converted 10 of his 13 field-goal attempts. Jackson likes the national ranking, and said it's one more motivating factor for a veteran-led team.
"We can handle [the ranking]," he said. "This is a new situation for us, and it may work out for the best. We've got a lot more games; if we can just go on a run, we can do something that other [Memphis] teams have done, but would be special for this team right here."
As for the furious pace of the last two games [the Tigers scored 89 points in beating Southern Miss last Saturday], Jackson likes the formula. "It's like a hot potato out there . . . guys giving [the ball] up," he said. "Everybody's getting out early, making plays. It makes the game easy."
Thomas enjoyed his third straight game in double figures with 17 points. Crawford added 10 points and four assists. Memphis outrebounded the Knights, 40-22.
Next for the Tigers will be a road game at Marshall on Saturday. The Tigers edged the Thundering Herd, 73-72, on January 26th.